Concert Performances, Outtakes and Private Recordings A sampling of rare material from 1940-1959
Royal Albert Hall recital, 1958
Sadly, with the exception of two Hollywood Bowl appearances in 1947-48 and a recital at the Royal Albert Hall in 1958, none of Mario Lanza's more than 150 concerts and recitals was recorded in its entirety. Even more frustratingly, neither Lanza's operatic debut at Tanglewood in 1942 nor his two Pinkertons for the New Orleans Opera Association in 1948 was captured for posterity.
There are also a number of private recordings from the 1940s and early 1950s that provide fascinating examples of Lanza's vocal development from a neophyte 19-year-old to an assured artist of 31. Below are a sampling of these public and private performances (together with two outtakes and one of the tenor's final recordings). Several of these come from the CD accompanying Armando Cesari's biography Mario Lanza: An American Tragedy,which brings together arguably the best of Lanza's surviving live and home recordings----Derek McGovern.
Lanza was just 19 when he recorded this one-verse rendition of Carlo De Flaviis' Neapolitan song 'Pecchè?' as a present for his father's 46th birthday. One of the earliest authenticated recordings we have of the tenor, allowances should be made for the primitive sound quality and (more importantly) for the fact that Lanza had had virtually no vocal training at this point. But while his youthful vibrato is fast here and his upper register unsupported, the distinctive and beautiful timbre is already evident, as is his commitment to the words.
On 22 May 1944, the then 23-year-old Lanza recorded a number of arias for his friend and mentor Maria Margelli at New York's Melotone Studios. One of these was a snippet—probably from a now-forgotten verismo opera—of an aria that no one has so far been able to identify. Brief though this elusive snippet is, however, it offers startling proof that even at this early stage in his vocal development, Lanza was producing, as Armando Cesari observes, an “amazingly dark, rich and even [sound].” (More can be read about this recording on our forum here.)
In June 1945 Mario Lanza made a number of test records of arias and songs for RCA. One of these was Leoncavallo's 'Mattinata,' and for years it was assumed by Lanza aficionados that only one take existed of this song. In February 2013, however, U.S. record collector Edward Skelly acquired a 78rpm in an estate sale that purported to be Lanza singing 'Mattinata' on the MGM label in March 1948. Curious about the recording's authenticity (since no Lanza discography lists a 1948 version), he contacted me to see if I could shed any light on the matter. Hearing the recording, it was immediately obvious that it was another take from the same June 1945 session. As to how it found its way on to an acetate with the MGM label, I have no idea, but I remain reasonably confident that this is the younger, slightly wayward Lanza prior to his voice technique lessons with Enrico Rosati. My gratitude to Edward Skelly for allowing me to share this previously unheard and spirited rendition. (For further reading, see our 'Mattinata' thread.)
28 August 1947 Hollywood Bowl With Frances Yeend, soprano Eugene Ormandy, conductor.
Play recording (5:27)
This concert was a turning point in Lanza’s career (ultimately changing the course of his life), for it was on the strength of his performance that evening that MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer, who was in the audience, signed the 26-year-old tenor to a long-term movie contract. Listening to this outstanding rendition of the difficult ‘Parigi, O Cara,’ one can readily imagine the impact of Lanza’s singing here on the opera-loving Mayer. Performing here with soprano Frances Yeend (with whom, along with bass-baritone George London, he had recently formed the Bel Canto Trio), Lanza is in ravishing vocal form, effortlessly negotiating the tricky mezza voce and diminuendo. Note: Lanza's and Yeend's magnificent performance at the same concert of the Act I love duet from Puccini's Madama Butterfly can be heard here.
È la Solita Storia (Lamento di Federico) from L'Arlesiana
5 March 1948 Massey Hall, Toronto Paul Scherman, conductor
Play recording (4:21)
Lanza began many of his concerts and recitals with the Lamento di Federico, and this 1948 performance from a very well-receivedappearance in Toronto was no exception. Arguably his finest rendition of Cilea's lovely aria, it’s also his most restrained version—a controlled and musical performance with some hauntingly beautiful touches, particularly in the exquisite opening lines. As always, Lanza sings the interpolated high B natural that his idol Gigli had introduced many years earlier. (Read more about Lanza's various versions of the Lamento di Federico on our forum.)
This vocal tour de force is from Lanza’s third and final appearance at the Hollywood Bowl. Singing with great sensitivity and beauty of tone in this duet with 18-year-old coloratura soprano Mary Jane Smith, Lanza makes a suave and convincing Duke. He ends the duet on a high D flat—his highest recorded note (and one that is no less thrilling for being slightly off-key).
Lanza Testing out a New Microphone
1952 Private recording
Lanza with Colleen (far left), Ellisa and Betty, 1952
Play recording (3:04)
Listen to Lanza amusing himself as he tests a new microphone, singing octave leaps and scaling baritonal depths to the delight of his four-year-daughter Colleen.
Questa Bocca Tua Profumata e Pura from Madame Sans-Gêne
1952 Private recording With Constantine Callinicos, pianist
Rehearsing with Callinicos, 1951
Play recording (1:48)
Lanza was always interested in lesser-known operas, and at one stage intended to record an album of “forgotten” arias by late nineteenth/early twentieth century Italian composers such as Cilea, Leoncavallo, Mascagni, and Giordano. Here he is rehearsing the aria ‘Questa Bocca Tua Profumata e Pura’ from Act II of Giordano’s rarely performed 1915 opera Madame Sans-Gêne. The recording begins five lines into the aria, and stops abruptly four lines before the conclusion (with the tenor apparently dissatisfied with "the lights"). Curiously, it then resumes with the closing lines of an aria from another as-yet-unidentified opera. At the end of this powerful rendition, Lanza says with stunning understatement: "I didn't hold back." (More can be read about this recording on our forum here.)
1952 Private recording. With Constantine Callinicos, pianist
Play recording (7:52)
As the critic James Miller once observed in Fanfare, Lanza would have been a superb Chénier, and it was one of the roles that the tenor most wanted to perform on stage. This 1952 home recording of the passionate Improvviso—complete with Lanza’s entertaining pre-aria banter and warm-up—reinforces the sense that he was born to play the part of the romantic poet. The placement of the voice here, with its rich, focused spinto sound and ringing upper register, coupled with excellent diction and an unwavering commitment to the words, make it one of Lanza’s finest operatic recordings. As the eminent musicologist Bill Park wrote in 2004, it is "a magnificent rendering of the aria . . . certainly to be ranked with the best."
13 July 1955 Outtake. Ray Heindorf, conductor, Warner Bros. Studio Orchestra
Unused Tosca sequence (with Lilian Molieri) for Serenade, 1955
Play recording (1:18)
This brief snippet from Puccini's Tosca consists of six lines sung by the character Mario Cavaradossi during his long Act I duet with Floria Tosca. It was recorded and filmed for Lanza's comeback movie, Serenade, in 1955, but cut from the release print—presumably because of concerns over the length of the film. In the original screenplay, "Qual Occhio al Mondo" was to have been the third item in a planned six-number montage that was ultimately reduced to three arias. [Read this forum discussion for further information.]
Quale occhio al mondo può star di paro all'ardente occhio tuo nero? È qui che l'esser mio s'affisa intero. Occhio all'amor soave, all'ira fiero, qual altro al mondo può star di paro all'occhio tuo nero?
This is another discarded recording from Serenade. Written by lyricist Sammy Cahn and composer Nicholas Brodszky, this song was replaced in the film by another number with the same title (also by Cahn and Brodszky). It's a shame this song wasn't used, as its fiendishly difficult tessitura would have provided a thrilling vocal moment in Serenade. Note: This is actually the second of two unused takes of the song. The first take appears on the 2004 BMG UK CD Serenade/ A Cavalcade of Show Tunes. Although the first take features a slightly better ending from Lanza, this is arguably the superior take overall. (See our forum discussion for further information.)
18 November 1957 Royal Variety Show, London Palladium Constantine Callinicos, conductor
Play recording (2:55)
This rarely heard performance is by no means Lanza’s most “correct” version of one of his favorite arias—either vocally or musically—but it is one of his most emotional renditions. And understandably so, for the occasion was a Royal Variety Performance in front of Queen Elizabeth II (and other members of the British Royal Family) after a six-and-a-half-year absence from the concert stage. Pale and visibly shaking before he walked on to the stage, Lanza nevertheless managed to control his nerves sufficiently to deliver a passionate performance that delighted his upper-crust audience. A video of Lanza performing this aria six days later at the same venue can be viewed here.
July 1959 "Raw" recording Constantine Callinicos, conductor
Play recording (1:55)
An ailing Mario Lanza recorded his penultimate album, Friml's 1925 operetta The Vagabond King, in Rome in one marathon session in July 1959, barely three months before his death. The exact recording date is unknown. For this album (and two others that Lanza recorded the same year), RCA made the dubious decision to record the tenor without the accompanying soprano—in this case, Judith Raskin—or the chorus present. The latter singers' contributions were subsequently recorded in New York a year after Lanza's death. What we hear on this recording, however, is the "raw" take—i.e. without Ms. Raskin or chorus—exactly as Lanza left it. The seventh number recorded that evening, "Only a Rose" concludes with a sustained high B-flat that provides thrilling evidence of his still-resplendent upper register.